When Julia (Julie Ledru), the protagonist of Lola Quivoron’s electrifying new film “Rodeo” – which premiered May 19 at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival – sets out to become a stuntwoman on a dirt bike, it seems everyone possible obstacles are in his way. For one thing, she needs a bike. High-performance dirt bikes are expensive, hard to find and even harder to maintain in the run-down apartment complex in the French suburbs where she lives in strained limbo with her family. But these circumstances will not stop him; she develops a simple scam to scam eBay sellers of their bikes into taking them for a test ride, capitalizing on the tendency of (usually male) buyers to view her as harmless.

From the moment she scrapes a handful of gravel into an empty purse, wipes her palms, then gives the bag to an unwitting salesman as collateral while she takes off with her bike, her prickly fearlessness sets the tone for the film. , bringing the public in his obsession to achieve glory on the asphalt. Before long, Quiveron’s riveting direction and jaw-dropping script ensure audiences share in this obsession, offering a glimpse into a hyper-competitive sport and its accompanying underworld that few viewers have ever encountered before.

Once Julia has a bike, she needs a gang. As Kaïs (Yanis Lafki) is quick to warn her when she approaches him to beg for gas during her first motocross encounter, showing up alone makes her totally vulnerable. The world of competitive biking is unforgiving and dangerous even for its best players, and a lone newcomer is more likely to have their bike lifted than receive a warm welcome. It doesn’t matter that Julia is a woman and everyone around her sees cycling as a man’s game; the prospect of a female competitor strikes her male peers as laughable and then infuriating, stoking resentment, harassment, and eventually threats of violence against her.

Quivoron’s pastiche of this first meeting is dizzying. As a whirlwind of reckless bikers loop the track, one on top of the other, the spectacle is addictive but fraught with danger, both from the motorbikes and their riders. Quivoron’s take on the racing scene is both brutally fast and delicately lyrical: through his lens, bikers move across the asphalt like armored dancers, challenging each other ever closer to injury. Supported by cinematographer Raphaël Vandenbussche’s gritty, bright visuals, Quivoron looks at the world of bikers with the awe of an outsider and the intimacy of an insider, making it impossible to look away as Julia weaves her way through in a crew.

She manages to enter with the group of Kaïs, the Be-More, who operate a shady underground garage under the strict direction of its incarcerated owner Domino (Sébastien Schroeder), who obsessively monitors their activities via video chat. In the gang, Julia finds an uneasy acceptance with most of her peers and endures the simmering rage of a few, making it clear that her membership rests on shaky ground. She gains a modicum of security, however, when Domino realizes he may be able to capitalize on her exclusion from male-dominated norms of cycling and enlists her to steal bikes through his harmless bike-testing scam. conduct. As Julia struggles to balance her fierce independence with the biker crew’s heightened control, Ledru skillfully portrays the competing forces of determination, self-preservation and desperation that drive her actions, delivering a riveting performance. and varied.

This film marks Ledru’s feature debut, and she conveys her character’s dogged determination and ingenuity so movingly that it keeps the film from dragging into the slower second act. There, the story turns away from Julia’s sport bike and stunt ambitions to focus on her growing involvement in the world of Domino, from stealing bikes in her name to buying groceries for her family. .

Once she’s down with the crew, Julia gets a chance to race alongside real bikers on the motocross scene. But although she is obsessed with stunt videos, she lacks basic skills. The film initially features his training as his third hurdle, setting up an obvious but satisfying arc between underdog and champion (like “Million Dollar Baby” on a tarmac track!). Instead, however, “Rodeo” leaves convention behind. In fact, it completely leaves the question of skill and stunts in the dust, showing how Julia quickly goes from dreaming about wheelies to planning elaborate bike thefts. Quivoron emotionally describes how Julia’s passion for sports becomes just another plan for survival, and her life reorients around her new purpose of maintaining Domino’s favor and supporting his beleaguered wife Ophelia (Antonia Buresi). The film’s emotional undercurrent rises to the fore, transforming it from a heartfelt sports hero story into a character-driven crime drama steeped in grim realism.

In the hands of a less gifted director, this pivot could drain the film of its momentum or its adrenaline. Instead, as Quivoron details Julia’s involvement in the social scene and her gang’s criminal endeavors, the pacing slows enough to bring the main characters into focus and draw their relationships with renewed depth, giving the film a new heart and higher stakes. Julia’s friendship with Ophelia is a high point in the story, placing the couple’s respective independence and captivity in contrast to emphasize how men ultimately exercise control over them and the world in which they live. The film is both a window into the pervasive misogyny endemic to the underground bike scene and a broader commentary on how men are threatened by female independence, often reacting not just abstractly, but by physical intimidation, harassment and control.

In the midst of all these tribulations, Quivoron never trivializes Julia’s love for cycling. Instead, she shows how it brings her deep and singular joy, portraying the all-consuming thrill of her rides. Throughout the film, road bike sequences lift off the screen with their lush vitality, bridging the gap between the cutting edge world of motocross and the grim reality of Julia’s home life. Julia’s relationship with the bike is one of liberation, as illustrated by Quivoron. As she navigates between harsh environments and struggles against the forces of loneliness, poverty and cruelty, the bike offers a meditative reprieve. But as Quivoron’s scathing, feminist film asks: can this sanctuary survive the crushing pressures of Julia’s life?

—Editor Harper R. Oreck can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @harperrayo.